According to the editors at Bikepacking.com the summer of 2021 will be … a lot like the summer of 2020. We may be able to walk mask-free into a convenience store to fuel up on Snickers and Gatorade, but the unpredictability of international travel will keep most of us exploring in our own backyards. For those of us who love our backyards, that’s not such a bad prognostication. If you’ve already got a working bike, all you need is a goal, whether it’s exploring new roads solo or finally signing up for that multiday charity ride.
There are no hard and fast rules for bikepacking. Some cyclists thrive on riding 1,000 miles in cutoff denim shorts, drinking from streams, bivouacking under the stars, and tempting fate with every decision. Others prefer to carry the extra weight of tents, sleeping pads, and stoves to ensure their comfort, safety, and well-being. There may not be a “wrong” way to do it, but there are some kit items, bike accessories, camping gear, and food that will make your two-wheeled foray into the wild more enjoyable.
What you’re reading now is a newly updated version of the guide we originally published last year. We’ve provided a few new suggestions for key pieces of the bikepacking puzzle and kept a few steadfast no-brainers provided last spring by Jeremy Kershaw, a registered nurse who for more than a decade has been organizing events like the Heck Epic, a three-day bikepacking race in northern Minnesota. Kershaw has pedaled thousands of miles to hone his systems. As he likes to say, “Bikepacking is a tinkerer’s dream. The pros and cons of each piece of equipment can be dramatic, but that’s part of the fun.”
Choose the Right Apparel
There’s plenty of bike-specific gear available to outfit you from head to toe, but here’s our advice for what works best on those week-long backcountry rides.
Cleats or Flats?
If you want to maximize time off the bike on a multiday trip, try Specialized’s Rime Flat Shoes ($130 at Specialized, $130 at Backcountry). It sounds like an oxymoron, but Specialized designed this relaxed biking shoe with hiking in mind. The design pairs an uber-grippy rubber outsole with a durable mesh and TPU upper that breathes well and drys quickly in inclement weather. It also has enough interior support to properly optimize hip, knee, and foot alignment on the bike, reducing your risk of injury. At 13.6 ounces, it feels like a light hiking shoe when you wear it off the bike. In the saddle, it’s stiff enough to power the pedals forward.
For those who want maximize their power, efficiency, and style quotient while minimizing weight, the answer is the Rapha Explore Powerweave shoe ($355 at Rapha). Yes, it’s pricey, but it’s packed with tech. The stiff carbon sole of a road shoe is topped by a 3D-woven fabric with TPU-reinforced yarns that give it strength and weather resistance. The two-wheeled boa lacing system ratchets to just the right tension so the shoe ends up feeling custom designed for your own foot.
Strap on a Helmet
Some bikepackers believe that helmets only add to the fatigue they feel over long miles while providing little added benefit, especially when riding on roads lightly traveled by cars and trucks. Others wouldn’t even consider straddling a bike without wearing a brain bucket. Here’s one helmet that meets the debate in the middle: the POC Ventral Lite ($275 at POC, $275 at The Pro’s Closet). Weighing 8.5 ounces, this highly ventilated helmet is one of the lightest ever produced, making it far less of a burden on your head. POC shaved weight by scaling back the outer shell to cover only the essential parts of the liner, which is made using a lower-density EPS foam.
A cycling baselayer should wick sweat going uphill and keep you warm and dry going down. It should also stretch in the shoulders, be compressive enough to provide support, and be long enough to keep you covered. We like the Specialized Merino Seamless Short Sleeve Base Layer ($80 at Specialized, $80 at Backcountry). Made from soft merino wool, this lightweight base layer does all of the aforementioned tasks well. Thanks to its naturally antimicrobial threads, it will also keep you stink free for those nights you happen to roll out on the town.
What you wear as your primary layer is a matter of personal choice. Some prefer a basic technical tee, while others will want a standard zip-up, three-pocket cycling jersey. So, let us consider the outer layer. The latest trend in cycling apparel is the technical hoodie. They’re great for cool riding in shoulder seasons, but they are also awesome off the bike while camping. Five bike companies sent me their hoodie for testing. I especially loved Velocio’s Recon Hoodie ($249 for women, $249 for men, both at Velocio). I wear it every day. The Italian-designed piece has a streamlined fit, a merino fleece lining, two zip pockets on the front, and one smaller zip pocket on the side.
A jacket needs to be roomy and pliable enough to allow you the freedom of movement you require to safely maneuver your bike. A good jacket should also be breathable while staying fully wind and waterproof for long-haul rides. A hood is nice too. The POC Signal All-Weather Jacket ($280 for men or women at Backcountry, $350 for men or women at POC) ticks all those boxes while still packing down wherever you want to stash it; just stuff it into its own back pocket and attach it, via snaps, to the front handlebars. Its built in RECCO receiver will ping search and rescue folks with your whereabouts if you wind up in a ravine, and an NFC chip inside can store critical health details that first responders can access using a companion app that’s available for Android or iOS.
Get Some Bibs
Diehards like to show their grit by riding in cutoff shorts with no protective chamois. And while those may dry faster, bib shorts are better. Bibs are aerodynamic, don’t bind in the waist, stay up, and have a chamois to keep your undercarriage from getting chafed. There are beefier bibs out there, but we like the Pearl Izumi Interval Cargo Bib Short ($124 and up for men or women at Pearl Izumi) because it has cooling mesh side panels for hot summer riding. It also has pockets on the thighs for quick access to snacks, a leg-gripping hem, and a comfortable friction-reducing chamois. Ladies take note: The distaff version has a drop panel designed for quick and easy pee breaks. Pearl Izumi tends to run slightly smaller than other brands, so consider sizing up.
Every season, I waver on whether expensive sunglasses are worth their lofty price tags. After testing multiple brands, I found that the more affordable Tifosi Sledge Light ($70 and up at Tifosi Optics) are as good as the more expensive options. They’re lightweight, flexible, and slip-free. And, importantly for long days, they come with interchangeable polycarbonate lenses—swap in clear, all-condition, or full-sun lenses—that keep your eyeballs covered no matter what kind of light the sun throws at them.
Neck and Neck
Bandanas are still more popular, but we can’t let go of our Buffs ($14 and up at Buffs) because they provide better coverage and a wider variety of protective features. The various models offered by Buffs guard against annoyances like the wind, the cold, biting insects, and the sun (with SPF 50 protection) to match whatever riding conditions you happen to find yourself in.
On a long ride into the unknown, you’ll need a piece of technology to count the miles, and of course tell you where exactly on the green hills of Earth you are. Stem-mounted bike computers are the standard-bearers of GPS systems among dedicated bikepackers, but some multi-sport athletes prefer the versatility of wearing their way-finding tech on their wrist. Plus, a smartwatch has the added benefit of tracking your heart rate and other physical data points. Whichever option you choose, Kershaw advises that you “make sure you understand your system before heading out.”